The Psychology of Your Vote: Ballots and Your Brain

This month, the doctor takes a look at how our brain affects our vote.

Patch contributor Dr. Mike takes a break from reader questions this month and ponders the psychological basis for our voting decisions.

Polls show President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney neck and neck in their race for the presidency. And with the election just days away, both gentlemen are working hard to secure your vote and a victory. The economy. Obamacare. Foreign policy. Medicare. Education. Social Security.

But what if these political issues, or at least how you feel about them, are actually not entirely in your control? What if the vote you cast on Nov. 6 turns out to be influenced more by your gray matter than by campaign ads, debates, career records or bus tours? Scientific research over the past several years has revealed some fascinating findings regarding the intersection between our biology and neurology and the way we vote.

Similarities across several well-conducted research studies have revealed a distinct trend when comparing the neuroanatomy of conservatives and liberals. Using structural MRI’s to assess political attitudes, a 2011 study published in Current Biology found that conservatism is correlated with increased volume in the amygdala and liberalism is correlated with greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortex.

The amygdala is the region of the brain that is associated with emotions including fear, pity, anger and aggression, in processing information involving subjects or events. Think fight-flight response for the amygdala. The anterior cingulate cortex, on the other hand, is the area of the brain that deals with conflict monitoring, error detection and weighing out competing parts of a problem toward a solution. Evolutionarily, the amygdala is considered to be an older part of the brain and the anterior cingulate cortex is housed in the frontal part of the human brain, which is considered to be the more recently developed part of the brain. 

These findings could loosely support the gross stereotypes that conservatives in general tend to process information on more of a reactive level and liberals tend to think more deliberately and with their hearts.

Additional research may support these stereotypes. For example, a recent two-year study on new car purchases conducted by Strategic Vision found that conservatives are the top purchasers of trucks, large SUVs, pickups and luxury cars – arguably emotional purchases – while liberals tend to purchase more hybrids and smaller, practical vehicles – arguably rational purchases involving reward anticipation, empathy and decision making. Conservatives are also much more likely to own guns in their homes than liberals, which could be considered a decision that is rooted more in fear and aggression than empathy and reason.

Conversely, other research has looked specifically at the role genetics play in political partisanship and ideology, as well as political participation, challenging the traditional idea that how you vote is mostly related to environmental factors (e.g., Trends in Genetics, 2012; Scientific America, 2009; the Journal of Politics, 2008; the American Political Association, 2008; Behavioral Genetics, 2007). While no one study has yet to locate the republican or democrat gene in determining voter outcome (if such a gene or genetic markers even exist), the research findings in this area of study concur that there is a very real relationship between genetics, heritability and voting.   

So what can science tell us about those elusive, undecided voters we have all heard so much about over the past several weeks? A 2008 large-scale twin study published in the American Science Review examined the correlation between identical and fraternal twins in voter outcome, which showed a significant genetic relationship for those who voted and those who abstained from voting. Another twin study published in 2012 in the Journal of Theoretical Politics found that the variation between voter participation can be accounted for by a genetic component and that this may hold true across cultures.

As a clinical psychologist in private practice, I have had the opportunity to listen to many of my patients’ views on politics over the years, and more recently their opinions and decision-making for the upcoming presidential election. Of course, I am not a researcher or scientist, I do not have a large randomized sample to pull from, and the topic of the presidential race has only been broached by some of my patients. But I have been listening closely for months now to those who do want to express their thoughts and feelings on the presidential race. And in my listening, I can honestly report that I have yet to meet an undecided voter in my Northern Virginia office. Rather, I have identified three types of voters in my practice: those who are Republican, those who are Democrat and those who are disinterested in voting. In listening to this latter group, it is clear to me how they feel and whom they would most likely vote for if pressed. The issue for these individuals is more importantly that they just do not want to vote.   

Be it nature or nurture, or a combination of the two, the exact hows and whys of your vote remain unclear. The science in this area is in its infancy, so for now, you just have to accept that your decision to vote for Obama or Romney, or not to vote at all, Nov. 6 is multiply determined by several factors – the various messages you internalized growing up and the current values, social mores and beliefs you have established as an adult, as well as your neuronal hard wiring and circuitry.


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